Cooperation adds up to good math

by Alison Ramsey

Mathematics professors at the Institut des sciences mathéma-tiques (ISM) have a lot to teach others, but not all of it has to do with formulas and equations. Members of the ISM believe that their institute points the way to the future of graduate studies.

The ISM is a consortium formed in 1992 by the mathematics departments of McGill, Concordia, the Université de Montréal and the Université du Québec à Montréal, aimed at upgrading and rationalizing post-graduate education in mathematics in the Montreal area.

It combines the expertise of the four universities to offer economical, first-rate graduate education. The Quebec government seems to agree, having recently pledged $375,000 to ensure that the institute continues for another three years. Their decision was favourably swayed by a $25,000 yearly contribution from each of the universities.

About 10 research and study programs are offered each year. Members also supervise theses--a McGill professor may have the specialty sought by a UQAM student, for instance. And the ISM coordinates colloquia that bring specialists from around the world to speak on topics of interest, offers mini-courses, and gives research and training support to post-doctoral fellows from around the world.

"It's something that all universities should do in all disciplines," says McGill's Peter Russell, who is the current director of the institute.

"It's a fantastic opportunity. You have a large pool of academics, and if they work together, they can do something splendid in graduate education."

The ISM operates on an annual budget of $225,000. Of that, $26,000 supports a coordinator; the rest brings in speakers and graduates, and foots the bill for special courses, colloquia, invited distinguished mathematicians, and for sending students to conferences and summer schools.

This year, the institute offered 12 major scholarships of $7,000 and 15 minor ones of $3,000, and pitched in for four or five post-doctoral fellowships. Combining resources is a powerful tool in education.

This is especially true in Montreal, which has so many universities in such close proximity. Students are encouraged to cross-register in ISM courses, making it possible to teach subjects that might otherwise languish. "We keep quality high, eliminate redundancy, and save money while doing so," says Concordia math professor John Harnad.

Although ISM scholars are expected to be comfortable in both French and English, there is no formal requirement for bilingualism. Nevertheless, ISM activities often tend to have a bilingual character. One of Harnad's courses this year drew more students from the Université de Montréal than from Concordia, so that's where he teaches it.

"I'm having fun," he says. "One day I teach the course in English, one day in French. The bottom line is, where high-quality scientific activity is the goal, linguistic differences tend to seem trivial. As an example of productive co-operation, the ISM could well be seen as a model for many of our other inter-institutional programs."